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A Whale of a Tale: The Whale Shark Hunters of the Philippines

By Kathleen Fairweather

Four children stand near a corpse of a whale shark.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for first-time documentary filmmaker Erin Calmes, the camera is the most effective way to affect global change. Calmes had originally traveled to the Philippines to photograph and document the lifestyle of an ancient headhunter tribal village located high in the mountains. Her goal at the time was to produce a coffee table book of photos. After shooting, Calmes took a day of much needed rest and relaxation at an obscure beach resort. That day changed her life, as well as Philippine fishing and export laws, and ultimately saved the gentle whale shark from extinction.

Calmes, who splits her time between Ventura, California, and Hood River, Oregon, explains how both her and this obscure giant fish unexpectedly crossed paths. “I was just about to leave the Philippines and decided that after three weeks of sleeping in the mud with assorted rodents and giant spiders: I needed a day on the beach. I ended up in a hotel at a small dive resort by the Bohol Bay. On the hotel wall were prominently displayed photographs of a strange, giant fish. The hotel owner told me that this was a whale shark, the world’s largest fish.” Calmes also learned that local hunters killed these gentle giants, known as Rhicondon typus, for their meat and fins, which later ended up as floating delicacies in the soup bowls of wealthy Asian diners.

The owner revealed to his American guest how the hunters would paddle out to the whale shark’s migration path and harpoon the hapless creature. The wounded whale shark would dive to the bottom after being hit, later followed by the hunter, who would dive to the bottom and stab the exhausted whale shark. In order to tow the mortally wounded animal to the final slaughter place, the hunter then pierced a hole through the whale shark’s upper lip through which he threaded a rope affixed to a floating buoy. Once on shore, they wait for a buyer, and then begin the grueling and excruciating task of “slicing and dicing” a fish that can weigh up to 20 tons. The chunks of flesh are then packed it into Styrofoam containers for export to Taiwanese and Singapore restaurants—where the meat is considered a prized delicacy and coveted aphrodisiac

Calmes was both horrified and intrigued by this act of brutality upon this rare species—so intrigued that when the owner knocked on her hotel room door and informed her that six of these gentle giants were being held in a nearby bay awaiting slaughter, the young journalist grabbed her camera, raced to the beach and documented this sad event.

Calmes investigated further and learned that the people of Talisayan previously eked out subsistence living as fishermen and seaweed farmers. That was before the local exporters and wealthy Asian importers offered a bounty of approximately $150.00 per fish—a lot of money to the families of this poverty-stricken, remote village. The exporters, however, received the princely sum of about $2,000 per fish.

Calmes traced the killing of the whale shark from the beach, through an export maze that led to the discovery that the villagers’ $150.00 fish had also been turned into $1,500.00 bowls of soup. “Somebody was making huge profits, and it was certainly not the fishermen,” Calmes notes. She and Jonathan Bentley-Stevens (who, in addition to Michael Tobias, became the film’s executive producer) brought this fact to the fishermen’s attention, with a plan that would both simplify the hunter’s lifestyle, and, ultimately save the whale shark.

Calmes had originally planned to film the story of the whale shark’s demise from the sea to the soup bowl, but fate had other plans. “Things happened so quickly,” Calmes explains. “First we gathered the hunters on an informal basis to determine whether they would be interested in alternative livelihood programs. We then proposed to them, the idea of them tagging the whale shark instead of killing it—for the same amount of money.”

Additionally, as part of the research efforts, the hunters would be given disposable cameras to take photos of the whale sharks that would help researchers track their migration patterns. Once the hunters realized they could make the same amount of money to not kill the whale sharks--with a lot less effort required from them than it took to hunt and slaughter the giant fish, they quickly moved to form the group known as the Whale Shark Spotters Association.

Meanwhile, Bentley-Stevens, a veteran of Philippine resource protection projects and tribal issues involving dealings with the government and tourist board, seized the momentum. He approached the Department of Tourism, and after many visits, successfully involved them in both the film and the foundation known as W.A.T.E.R.F.A.L.S. (Worldwide Awareness of Tribal and Environmental Resources Fostering Alternative Livelihood Strategies).

This move drew the attention of the governor who held a press conference dramatizing the plight of the whale shark. The result was three weeks worth of newspaper headlines, and the first ever news coverage of the wholesale slaughter of this gentle behemoth of the deep. According to Calmes, the timing could not have been more synchronistic. With an upcoming election only 30 days away, the media attention galvanized the people of the Philippines. The astonishing result? President Ramos immediately signed an executive order that banned the hunting and exporting of whale sharks (and manta rays) throughout the Philippine Islands—a totally unexpected and pleasant surprise for Calmes and her crew.

Calmes is still amazed by the turn of events that resulted in this fortuitous outcome and huge accomplishment. “It took many people and events coming together at the right time,” she recalls. “The synergy of this project is an example of how people’s efforts can and do make a difference. I can’t explain it. It’s as though I was led to the right people at the right time. I never dreamed that I would become part of the story. As a journalist, I am very cognizant of the distinction between the subject and storyteller. The film has taken over my life.”

Indeed, Calmes would like to return to the Philippines to follow up on the lives of the fishermen. She would also like to produce an educational film on the whale shark. Calmes is hopeful that her film will soon receive distribution, and has received interest from the National Geographic Society to be considered as a part of their Sea Stories series.

Calmes acknowledges the difficulty of remaining neutral in the course of documentary filmmaking. “How much do you involve yourself in the story? Do you step back and let the story tell itself, or, do you step in and allow the world to be affected by your involvement?” The choice was an obvious one for Calmes, who is pleased with the results of her film to date. “Our efforts have led to a direct ban on whale shark hunting. In today’s world it is impossible for us to work in a vacuum. As people, we all influence each other. The most important thing I have learned is to follow our dreams. Our efforts can and do make a difference.”

Kathleen Fairweather is editor of International Documentary.